Letter From Cairo
Jazeera's 500-odd staff is drawn from a reasonable cross-section of Arab political opinion, although given that the station hires people who have chosen not to work in the state media, there's certainly an anti-establishment overtone. The critics point out that Qatar, which subsidizes the station, gets let off the hook; so, to a lesser extent, does the emirate's powerful and temperamental neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Other Arab regimes, however, do not. As of last year, the Qatari foreign ministry had logged 400 official complaints about Jazeera's content.
Cairo gets particularly touchy when Jazeera challenges its claims regarding Israel and the protection of Arab rights, as when the channel highlighted how Egypt had blocked meaningful sanctions on Israel at the Arab summit last October or when it subsequently broadcast Palestinian demonstrators bearing an effigy of Egyptian President Mubarak as a donkey. The state press declared that Jazeera was a Mossad front whose goal was to run down Egypt's reputation, while the minister of information threatened to shut down a Jazeera studio outside Cairo. In the end, the Egyptian state limply expressed its discontent by kicking the brother of a Jazeera presenter out of the country.
Despite Jazeera's novelty, its ratings a few years ago still came in behind Lebanese satellite stations known mainly for their mix of dance videos and classic movies. That all changed with the outbreak of the Al Aqsa intifada. Egyptian viewers experienced what the United States first did in the 1960s: a war brought into their living rooms. Regular Jazeera viewer Cherine Hussein describes the content: "Little kids getting beaten up by Israeli soldiers and throwing rocks, and their mothers crying about the children that died.... It's really emotional, and if you watch it long enough you get really pissed off."
In this atmosphere, Jazeera's videotaped speech of Osama bin Laden saying "America and those who live in America cannot dream of security before it becomes reality in Palestine" was pitched well to an audience that, night after night, has been watching Palestinians being brutalized on TV. Egypt's own bloody internecine conflict in the 1990s has soured the population on radical Islam, but analysts here say bin Laden's address resonates because he downplays the radicals' ideological battle with "infidel" Arab regimes and sticks to an area where the Arab world shares a consensus: US Middle East policy. Bin Laden is probably not a hero to most, or even many, but he's certainly a hero to a few.
I watched a clip of a Jazeera presenter arguing with a young student at a demonstration outside Cairo University. Bin Laden was no terrorist, the student insisted. But didn't he kill civilians? the presenter countered. No, she said, "they" killed civilians first.
Jazeera journalists bristle at the suggestion that they served bin Laden's agenda by airing his tape on the first day of the US bombing campaign. No journalist would refuse such a cadeau (gift), says Cairo bureau chief Hussein Abdel Ghani. Jazeera has also not refused cadeaux from a growing list of Western policy-makers who've apparently taken the New York Times up on its suggestion to "shower Al Jazeera with offers of interviews" to woo Arab public opinion. This hasn't mollified critics. The British press has said that Jazeera showed its bias during the current crisis when interviewer Sami Haddad asked Prime Minister Tony Blair "harsh" questions about Iraq, Palestine and his own enthusiasm for war. Haddad countered that he just wanted to raise Arab viewers' concerns. As for more general accusations of bias, Jazeera's talk-show hosts are an opinionated lot, and its field reporters make little effort to spare viewers footage of intifada deaths or civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Whether that's bias or merely par for the course in TV journalism is open to debate.
Whatever effect Jazeera may have on public opinion, it is certainly no threat to Mubarak's government, at least in the short run. Egypt's fifty-year-old military regime is good at nothing if not staying in power. However, the state has lost one of its clear assets--the ability to rally citizens around the flag. Jazeera has seriously undercut Egypt's ability to pose as the protector of Palestinian and Arab rights; it has also rammed home to audiences the constraints of their current political system. For years, Egypt's regime could take potentially unpopular positions for the sake of its alliance with the United States; it may not be able to in the future.